NLyze: Interactive Programming by Natural Language for SpreadSheet Data Analysis and Manipulation

Abstract

Millions of computer end users need to perform tasks over tabular spreadsheet data, yet lack the programming knowledge to do such tasks automatically. This paper describes the design and implementation of a robust natural language based interface to spreadsheet programming. Our methodology involves designing a typed domain-specific language (DSL) that supports an expressive algebra of map, filter, reduce, join, and formatting capabilities at a level of abstraction appropriate for non-expert users. The key algorithmic component of our methodology is a translation algorithm for converting a natural language specification in the context of a given spreadsheet to a ranked set of likely programs in the DSL. The translation algorithm leverages the spreadsheet spatial and temporal context to assign interpretations to specifications with implicit references, and is thus robust to a variety of ways in which end users can express the same task. The translation algorithm builds over ideas from keyword programming and semantic parsing to achieve both high precision and high recall. We implemented the system as an Excel add-in called NLyze that supports a rich user interaction model including annotating the user's natural language specification and explaining the synthesized DSL programs by paraphrasing them into structured English. We collected a total of 3570 English descriptions for 40 spreadsheet tasks and our system was able to generate the intended interpretation as the top candidate for 94% (97% for the top 3) of those instances.